One of the topics vets and dairy producers attending the recent Total Dairy seminar in Stratford-upon-Avon heard how lameness could reach zero per cent. Ann Hardy reports.
Achieving zero per cent lameness is a realistic target and is already being achieved by a few select herds. However, it should be an aspiration for every dairy producer and there is no need for the process to be complicated.
This was the message from Gerard Cramer, a former dairy farmer turned specialist lameness vet now with the University of Minnesota. He said: “If you take a step back to some key principles, lameness becomes pretty easy.”
He added that a good team of people was at the heart of overcoming lameness, but one member of the team should be the designated ‘lameness advocate’.
“Too often we play the blame game,” said Dr Cramer. “But we need people – the nutritionist, foot trimmer, vet, farm workers – to start working together and communicating.”
However, one person should ‘take up the torch’, taking overall responsibility for the farm’s lameness to avoid a conflict of opinions.
He said the process should involve the identification of bottlenecks to determine a plan.
“Think about the specific bottlenecks on your farm and work with people who can identify the right one to work on first,” he said. “What works on one farm might be completely different on another.”
For example, was the trimming good, bad or insufficient and if it is fixed, will it make a difference if the biggest bottleneck is in a different area? Were the cows standing too much or in an unhealthy environment? Or was the footbath programme the problem?
“If we update the trimming programme, we may not end up with fewer lame cows if the biggest bottleneck is the footbath area,” he said.
Keeping accurate records was essential in the process, so trends could be monitored and benchmarked and decisions based on evidence.
“For example, if you say everything is going to be trimmed twice a year, are we actually doing that?” he asked. “And what type of lesion are we seeing at what stage of lactation and in which age group of cows?
“If your cows are getting lame at 150 days in milk, then you need to strategically trim to prevent this.”
Preferring to see a ‘flat line’ on the annual graph of new cases, he said this meant cows were being found as soon as they became lame.
“We are probably never going to see a flat graph, but I do not want to see huge peaks at the time of trimming, as this means the hoof trimmer now becomes the lameness detection person,” he said.
Records also highlighted cows for re-checks which should usually be four to six weeks after the lameness event. However, protocols should be in place to prevent continuous returns for re-inspection.
“As systems get bigger, people who make decisions about cows that need to be culled get further removed,” he said. “So, a hoof trimmer might see a cow seven or eight times; the biggest number I have seen is 23 times.
“There needs to be a process where we say if a cow goes through the chute X number of times – and my number is four – we need to make a decision about what happens.
“We cannot just keep sending them through, as there are only limited things the hoof trimmer can do.”
He cited mobility scoring – ideally carried out at least every two weeks – as an important part of the prevention process and praised the UK as one of the few countries where it is carried out on a regular basis.
He said lameness lesions, and in particular digital dermatitis, were lifelong conditions so prevention should be focussed on an early age group.
“I am going to argue that digital dermatitis is the easiest lesion to control,” he said.
Referring to a Wisconsin study, he said 80 per cent of pre-calving heifers which remained free from dermatitis lesions would remain healthy in the next lactation.
“But if they had one lesion as a heifer in the pre-calving period, only 50 per cent stayed healthy,” he said. “If they had more than one lesion, 70 per cent of them had it again in the next lactation.
“If you can keep it out of your heifers, you’re ahead of the game,” he said. “But if you have it in your heifers and do not do anything to prevent or control it, you are continuously bringing those animals into your herd.”
With the ultimate goal of avoiding the lifelong, chronic condition, he believed a typical prevalence of 30 per cent could be brought down to 10 per cent in one or two years.
However, he said the best herds kept lameness at under five per cent and some achieved zero. These were typically said to footbath regularly, have sand bedding, ‘do an amazing job of transition management’ and have a good foot trimmer.